Living Rivers: Understanding Our Lymphatic System (Pt. 2)
Now that we have an understanding of the lymphatic system, how do we care for it?
In a perfect world, through supporting lymphatic flow, you are supporting your own personal immunity. Yet sometimes it isn’t that cut and dry. How you nourish your lymphatic system is highly dependent upon your own personal bodily constitution, beliefs, time limitations in a hectic world, diet and lifestyle, socioeconomic factors, and herbal support. Yet there are some general remedies that support overall lymphatic health that are beneficial for everyone. Here are five keys to daily lymphatic support:
Before food or herbal medicine even comes into play, the most beneficial method of action you can take for your immune system, every other system of your body, and your overall quality of life is exercise. This cannot be said enough. Your lymph does not flow on its own the way your blood does. Without movement it can become bogged down, dried up or inflamed depending on your overall constitution or lifestyle. Your lymphatic system is a river, and rivers need movement to thrive.
What kind of exercise you need is entirely individual. There is no one-size-fits-all answer here or some 80s workout routine that we should all be doing on the daily. If you’re someone who tires easily or is often ‘too in the head’, maybe yoga is a good way to go. If you have tons of energy ready to burn and can feel depressed without enough movement, try some high-speed cardio. Listen to your body, don’t overextend yourself, and have fun. Bonus points if it gets you outside in nature!
One of the main keys to lymphatic support is hydration. Our culture is chronically dehydrated, yet the majority of us have access to clean water. What if we really began to recognize that? Through honoring the life-sustaining gifts of the water, we wouldn’t take our own water for granted and nourish ourselves in the process. Our bodies are more than 70% water… and without water, we literally cannot survive.
Food and water are always our first medicines, as we should always start here before depending upon the plants. As far as digestion is concerned, sipping on warm water throughout the day helps support lymphatic flow over drinking a large cool glass of water at once. Cold or iced water can cool down the digestive fire within the body which is a big no-no.
If your digestive fire isn’t functioning properly, this could lead to a multitude of symptoms such as gas, bloating, indigestion, food intolerance, or constipation. One good practice (especially in the colder months) is to start your day with a glass of hot water with lemon and a pinch of high quality salt to get your digestive juices flowing as well as support the body’s overall hydration with the addition of electrolytes from the salt.
Eating a whole food diet rich in fruits and vegetables is one of the simplest ways to support lymphatic flow, as well as ensuring adequate fiber intake to help support elimination which in turn supports detoxification pathways and hormonal balance. Do your best to eat three meals a day with a complete protein in every meal (quinoa, rice & beans, seaweeds, meat, etc).
Avoid foods cooked in oil as much as possible and add raw EFAs (essential fatty acids) to every meal like extra virgin raw olive, hemp, flax, borage, coconut, and pumpkin oils. Again, hydration is key and a completely overlooked aspect of that is ensuring high quality raw oils in every meal. Wet white veggies such as daikon, bok choy, cauliflower, and cucumber provide hydration to meals as well.
Never forget the power of spices, and remember that these are herbs. Kitchen spices are profound and simple herbal medicines to boost the digestive qualities of the food you’re eating. And as always, keep it simple. Feeling cold? Try some warming spices like cayenne, cinnamon, ginger, or turmeric. Too warm? Add in some mint or fennel to balance it out. Don’t be afraid to play with your food here and find what works for you.
A personal favorite, massage has been used for centuries to help stimulate lymphatic flow while nourishing the body, mind, and spirit and promoting the strength of tissues and skin. If you can’t afford the luxury of a monthly massage from an LMT, don’t despair. Daily body oiling, called abhyanga in Ayurveda can be a simple and grounding addition to your self-care routine.
The most traditional oil for this is sesame, but sunflower oil, coconut oil, and even olive oil can be used. Make an infused oil with your favorite herbal allies to add even more healing properties. Better yet, add salt to it and make a salt scrub to use vigorously all over before a shower to exfoliate the skin and support lymph flow. Remember, a little oil goes a long way so you don’t need a lot at once, and it’s a good idea to keep a set of pajamas around that you don’t mind ruining over time for wearing when you’re extra oily.
Other additions to your lymphatic massage can include gua shas (traditional Chinese scraping tool used on the skin), cuppings (also stems from TCM), and dry brushing before your shower or abhyanga.
When discussing daily support for the lymphatic system, the classifications of herbs we want to turn to (generally speaking) are lymphagogues and immune tonics. Lymphagogues help aid in the detoxification of the lymphatic glands and often may work on the kidneys, liver and gastrointestinal tract as well. These are typically indicated where there is stagnation in the lymphatic system and many can be drying in the long term.
Some popular yet gentle lymphagogues include Cleavers (Gallium Aparine), Calendula (Calendula Officinalis), Red Clover (Trifolium pratense), and Burdock (Arctium lappa). Immune tonics are best used over time to help strengthen the vital reserves of the body, not during an acute sickness (with the exception of elderberry). Some classic immune tonics include nearly all medicinal mushrooms with Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) being a popular one, Elderberry (Sambucus spp.), and Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) - a personal favorite.
Also to note are our bitter herbs which help the gallbladder produce enough bile to digest foods properly and support liver detoxification. Bitters are best used in situations with excess heat and are drying over time. Some classic and accessible bitters include Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinalis), Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), Gentian (Gentiana lutea), and Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata).
This is just a small example of different herbs that work medicinally on the lymphatic system, but it is important to note that these plants are not for everyone. Please remember that there is never a one-size-fits-all picture of herbal medicine. Always look at the quality of the lymphatic system and find the herb that balances. Start simple with gentle herbs, do your research, and ask an herbalist or a trusted practitioner for help if you’re not sure.
A few words on the inflammatory response…
Inflammation is the first symptom of imbalance, yet it is a crucial aspect of our body’s innate healing capacity. It’s essentially the immune system fighting off foreign invaders as we discussed in Part 1 of this post. A few examples of how inflammation can show up in the body are pain, swelling, fever, mucous production, stiff achy joints, or digestive upset. With the exception of life-threatening acute situations and autoimmune conditions, it’s important to let inflammation run its course without suppressing it as your body is healing itself.
If you do find yourself in an acute inflammatory response, the best medicines are rest and hydration. When healing from an injury, make sure to add adequate protein into your diet as proteins are the building blocks for cellular growth. Each situation is different and has its own individual remedies, but it is key to not suppress your vital force by pumping anti-viral herbs like Echinacea which can actually lodge the sickness deeper in the body. As always, trust in your body and it’s amazing capacity to heal. It’s absolutely amazing.
I would love to hear your favorite lymphatic herbs and remedies, so please leave a comment below and let’s start a conversation!